Art in the church and the church in art: Work of the Group of Seven

Anglican Church at Magnetawan (1933) by A.J. Casson (National Gallery of Canada)

Photo: Anglican Church at Magnetawan (1933) by A.J. Casson (National Gallery of Canada)


Erin Semande

Buildings and architecture, Arts and creativity

Published Date: Sep 10, 2009

Talented and renowned artists have long been commissioned to decorate the interiors of places of worship, where they often turn the walls and ceilings into artistic masterpieces. At the same time, places of worship have frequently been depicted by artists, who find esthetic value in the symbolism of these buildings and their placement in the human and natural landscape. These artistic traditions possess a uniquely Canadian twist when the artists are members of the Group of Seven.

St. Anne’s Anglican parish in Toronto was founded in 1862; the present church was built in 1907-08. Rector Rev. Lawrence Skey (1867-1948) was appointed to St. Anne’s in 1902. His low-church point of view, independent parish ideals and interest in Toronto’s art community influenced the architectural and artistic masterpiece that St. Anne’s became.

Toronto-based architect William Ford Howland (1874-1948) won the competition to design the church, and chose a Byzantine Revival style unique among Anglican churches in Canada. Even with St. Anne’s outstanding architecture, the most impressive feature of the church is the series of murals that adorn the interior, executed in 1923 by 10 Toronto artists – three from the Group of Seven, including J.E.H. MacDonald (1873-1932), F.H. Varley (1881-1969) and Franklin Carmichael (1890-1945). The murals’ biblical scenes were a notable departure for these artists, who usually focused their artistic attention on nature; they constitute the Group’s only known religious works of art. Two of the finest paintings, located in the pendentives of the church, are Varley’s Nativity scene and MacDonald’s depiction of the Crucifixion.

Religious icons were rarely depicted by the Group of Seven, but their paintings of church exteriors demonstrate their devotion to the outdoors. In 1926, A.J. Casson (1898-1992) joined the Group after the departure of original member Franz Johnston (1888-1949). Casson’s Anglican Church at Magnetawan depicts St. George the Martyr Anglican Church, constructed in 1880 as an Anglican mission for the sparsely settled region. Casson painted St. George the Martyr in 1933, during a period when he was focusing on rural Ontario villages.

Casson depicted the church bathed in warm, golden sunlight amid the backdrop of a rocky yet lush landscape, capturing the church’s essence – a landmark in a remote community and a marker to visitors and residents arriving by water. Today, the painting hangs in the National Gallery of Canada. The people of Magnetawan remain proud of their church and its place in Canadian art history.